Supreme Court to consider ex-Virginia governor's conviction

Supreme Court to consider ex-Virginia governor's conviction
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The Supreme Court will weigh Wednesday whether to throw out former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s federal corruption conviction and two-year prison sentence.

A federal grand jury convicted the Republican former governor and his wife Maureen in September 2014 on 11 counts of fraud for having accepted more than $175,000 in gifts and loans from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., an executive at the dietary supplement company Star Scientific. The gifts included $15,000 for their daughter’s wedding reception.

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In August, the court issued an order allowing McDonnell to remain free while it considers his of appeal of a lower court’s decision upholding his conviction.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found there had been enough evidence for a jury to find that McDonnell had used his power in office to help William’s secure independent testing for a new tobacco-based diet supplement called Antabloc.

The high court is now being asked to set new limits on federal bribery laws by defining what constitutes an “official action.”

Lawyers for McDonnell argue that by the government’s standard everything officials do in their official capacity could be included.

“On that limitless definition, official action encompasses everything from appearing at events to handling routine constituent services,” McDonnell’s attorneys said in a court brief. “If that is so, any federal, state, or local official who accepts gifts, travel, or campaign contributions in exchange for such acts is a felon—even if he never exercises, agrees to exercise, or presses anyone else to exercise governmental power on his benefactor’s behalf.”

The federal government argues there was ample evidence to show that McDonnell’s financial arrangements with Williams came with the expectation that McDonnell would help secure the testing needed for Williams’ drug. Even if McDonnell didn’t actually help Williams, the government says he’s still guilty.

“A public official who secures a bribe by agreeing to exercise influence is guilty even if he later ‘defaults on his illegal bargain,’ the government said in a court brief.

In the lower courts, McDonnell argued there had been a multitude of errors in his jury trial, during which his broken marriage with Maureen McDonnell took center stage. He claimed the district court misstated the law and the sufficiency of the evidence presented against him, that his trial should have been severed from his wife’s and that the district court’s questioning of potential jurors violated his Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury.

The court denied McDonnell’s request to also review the trial court’s jury selection process.

An hour has been reserved for oral arguments. Noel Francisco, an attorney with Jones Day, will argue on behalf of McDonnell and Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben will argue on behalf of the federal government.